What Are Your Survival Chances if Caught in an Avalanche?

skier caught in an avalanche

The answer is, a lot higher with an avybag on your back. The skier, above, caught in this massive slide, only survived by deploying his ABS airbag. But the best lightweight avybags are an expensive piece of backcountry kit. So if you're upgrading to a new avalanche backpack, pass yours on and maybe save someone else's life.

Which is why an avalanche pack is now essential backcountry kit

It was in 2013 that I first deployed my SCOTT airbag. Fortunately, it wasn't in an avalanche but in Mojo's Bar in Serre Chevalier where I was testing it in front of a cheering apres audience. Since then I have only unleashed those orange inflated wings by mistake transitioning from ski touring by a chairlift, which was a tad amusing for the lifties but not quite as funny as when a certain mountain guide triggered his in a La Grave cabin.

An avybag - avi or avalanche airbag backpack - is the one piece of kit that you hope never to have to use, except for carrying extra layers, skins, and a thermos of tea. But I never loved my avybag like the rest of my gear (I sleep with my DPS Pagoda Tour 106 skis in the bedroom). I always wore mine under duress, under the extra weight. My first one was so heavy that I decided that 'avy' as in avybag must be short for heavy as in 'he-avy', and my second 30L was so long in the frame that it came halfway down my butt.

RECALL OF ABS AIRBAGS

Technology and design have come a long way since 1985 and the first avalanche backpack with an airbag system, officially launched by Peter Aschauer of ABS at ISPO Munich. We now have the more advanced Jetforce electronically-charged avybags available from Black Diamond and Pieps and the Alpride E1 supercapacitor airbags from Black Diamond, Osprey and SCOTT.

But it was ABS who suffered a major setback when, In 2015, they had to recall a total of 40,000 TwinBag system airbags and 72,000 steel cartridges, after the discovery that isolated steel cartridges had been contaminated by processing residue during the filling process at the supplier in Austria.

Just 0.2 percent of all the returned systems were affected, that's 90 products with all 72,000 steel cartridges checked and cleaned as a precautionary measure. Two years later, at the age of 74, Per Aschauer sold out to Spin Capital.

According to Cain at Snowsafe, the SCOTT Patrol E1 avalanche backpack, one of the lightest on the market with supercapacitor technology, now outsells all the other brands, with around 90 percent of the UK market. Most customers are men, so let's hope they are buying some as presents for their wives/girlfriends. A fashionista might love a Birkin, a vintage fashion bag for life, but what backcountry babe wouldn't prefer a bag that could save her life?

SAFETY AND STORAGE

Today the use of a rechargeable battery for deployment avoids potential issues with cartridges including the worry that your airbag will be left on the tarmac if you travel by plane. With the lighter Jetforce and Alpride mechanisms, brands have significantly reduced the weight of avybags and increased their capacity (an issue used to be lack of room for stashing layers, spare gloves, etc) so they are now an even more useful piece of kit for storage as well as for safety. Most of the lightest airbags on the market weigh-in at under 6lbs (2721g) including mechanisms. The Orotvox 18L Avabag, however, is the lightweight champion, coming in just over 3.5lbs (1630g) but good luck stuffing your puffa jacket in there.

I am now on my third avybag, below, having changed my original for one of the latest generation of superlight SCOTT Alpride E1s and, then, for a shorter frame 30L  bag (same mechanism) that fits my back better (I'm 5'6"). Gavin has taken the longer frame one and has bought new mechanism having sold his five year old Alpride to a mate.

ski touring DPS 106 Pagoda skis and SCOTT Alpride airbag
 

SAFETY IN NUMBERS

There are, of course, numerous videos to convince anyone of the wisdom of taking an avybag showing how they can save a skier or snowboarder in an avalanche, the inflated wings or balloon cushion, usually bright yellow/orange, not only keeping them on top of the moving mass of snow, but also making them easily visible to rescuers.

You can look for statistics for how many people have been saved but the most quoted research by Haegeli dates back to 2015.. By compiling accident statistics for Worksafe BC (a Canadian workplace safety organisation), Haegeli determined airbag packs improved survival rates in serious avalanches by 27 percent. His work showed 56 percent of victims without a balloon pack survived, while 83 percent with a pack made it out alive. 

Of course, not all avalanches will be fatal so some may have made it anyway. Also not everyone reports their near misses and whether they deployed their airbag so statistics are never going to give an accurate picture of their success rate. But if your chances are better with an avalanche pack, why wouldn't you carry one?

AVY BAGS AS ESSENTIAL KIT

Maybe, you wouldn't carry one because having an avybag makes you less cautious, more likely to risk skiing that 40 degree north-facing slope? This has been an argument against having an avybag often raised by backcountry old timers but not, it has to be said, by mountain guides who all carry them, knowing that the backcountry can catch out even the most experienced skier.

Of course, off-piste safety knowledge is as essential as carrying transceiver, shovel and probe. Learning about terrain, snowpack and being aware of heuristic traps is one of the best ways to danger-proof yourself against obvious slide situations. 

PASS IT ON 

The biggest argument for not carrying an avybag is the cost. At around £800, it can be more than your total ski or snowboard setup so I can see why anyone strapped for spare cash could want to do without strapping one on their back to go shred some pow. 'Some pow' can so easily turn into some slide. Staying alive is priceless.

As they say 'no friends on a powder day', you could comment, 'no brains on a powder day' for those who don't think about carrying safety gear. These days, there is zero excuse for not riding with transceiver, shovel and probes because they are essential tools for saving others. And there's now very little excuse for not having an airbag, as there is now a second hand market. Okay so they not giving them away but you can pick up a decent and fully- functioning second hand avybag for around £250.

So if you have an avalanche airbag you're no longer using be sure to pass it on. It could save someone's life. 

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